A letter to Friends back home

December 15, 2015 by

Dear Friends back in New York City and in New York Yearly Meeting:

During these three weeks between school terms at Earlham School of Religion, I want to seize the opportunity to greet you, bless you, and thank you, first for making a Quaker of me and helping me raise my children as Quakers, second for helping me find and marry such a wonderful Quaker wife, thirdly for loving us, helping us grow in our faith, and acknowledging and supporting our spiritual gifts, and lastly for helping us relocate to Richmond, Indiana to study for Masters’ of Ministry degrees at Earlham School of Religion. Going to study at ESR was a dream of mine, since the early 1990s, that I never thought I’d have fulfilled in this lifetime. And we love being here. Hallelujah!

But I would never have been ready to come here to study until I was ready to commit to living, no longer for myself, but for God – which is to say, for others, who are all, without exception, God’s beloved children, whom God both wants and intends, I firmly believe, to save from this fallen life of mortality, ignorance, and suffering. (Living for others also means that I’m not just pursuing my own academic success here, but also Elizabeth’s and all my classmates’ as well; Elizabeth and I are clearly being prepared for some mission as a team.)

Living for others means that I’m living and studying for all the world’s oppressed, disadvantaged, and hurting, both humans and other creatures; I’m living and studying for all the oppressors, who are full of suffering they haven’t started to feel yet, and desperately need repentance and healing of their brokenness; I’m living and studying for all the world’s exemplars of kindness and wisdom, that they might be lifted up high, so that their light might shine far and wide; and I’m living and studying for all of you that might want an ESR education for yourselves, but have children to raise, jobs to do, health and debt problems to cope with, and all those ties keeping you where you are. So let me try to give back some of the bounty I’ve been given, and share with you some of what I’ve been learning since I got here four and a half months ago.

I’d say that the main thing I’ve been learning is the art of self-emptying, or what theologians call kenosis. One of the courses I just finished taking was Introduction to New Testament Studies. I decided (or was led) to call my term paper “Christ’s Kenosis and Ours: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Philippians 2:5.” I thought I was going to sound very smart and scholarly. Nope. I gathered all these books and articles, planning to cook them into a delicious intellectual stew, and then I sat there, and sat, and sat, unable to do anything with my material until it told me what wanted to be written. And what wanted to be written boiled down to: “Take Philippians 2:5 seriously. Don’t think you can act like Christ by trying to. Get out of the way and let Christ act through you.” I had to throw out over half of my intended bibliography. It was a little like trying to drive to Boston in a dream, only to find that the car insisted on driving to Philadelphia and wouldn’t hear of Boston.

Actually, that Philadelphia-bound car showed itself during my first week here, back at the beginning of August. I was taking a two-week intensive course in Spiritual Formation and not managing to keep up with the work. Some of my required readings were still in U-haul boxes in New York, and I couldn’t get replacements for them here in time. “I’m failing,” I thought. “I’m halfway through Week One and I’m failing.”

I immediately got the message, loud and clear: “I didn’t bring you here to fail. Now stop thinking like that.”

Kenosis. One aspect of it is not-doing, a concept that will be familiar (as wu-wei) to readers of the Tao Te Ching. In Introduction to Pastoral Care we got a lot of instruction on listening. Many of the “helpful” things I was saying in my caregiving encounters were turning out not to be helpful at all: they were putting words into the careseeker’s mouth, they were getting in the way of her self-discovery, they were imposing my assumptions on her process. I’ve had to learn to treat the pastoral-care interview like a meeting for worship with a concern for clearness: center down, and center down, and center down again. Be empty and wait for the person seeking clearness to name her own clearness.

This seems to be a lesson for me also with regard to “political” action in the world, in the widest sense of the word. “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth,” boasted Archimedes, explaining the physics of the lever. But what leverage for good can Johnny have on the world if Johnny weighs nothing? (And what weight can even Archimedes bring to bear on his earth-moving lever if he’s so high in space as to be weightless?) So I wait on the Holy Spirit to show me what to do, and the impact my action has, my “weight,” will be whatever the Holy Spirit intends. I continue not to vote, since I regard the ballot box as a carnal weapon, intended to defeat and silence opponents, not to make them better. Moreover, to participate in the choosing of a Commander-in-Chief (or Governor, Senator, etc.) is to help put control of lethal weaponry into the hands of one fallible candidate or the other, a form of killing-by-proxy that my membership in Christ disallows. If called for jury duty, I’m prepared to tell the judge, “I have no faith in this criminal justice system to do criminal justice, nor in this correctional system to correct.” But then, my citizenship is not really in any state that rules by violence and the threat of violence, but in a monarchy that isn’t of this fallen world, whose Ruler, Love Itself, is almighty. I pledge my allegiance to it every time I say “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.” I think we serve it with every act of rightly motivated kindness, whatever our faith tradition or our theology.

I’ve taken a fascinating class called “The Creation of Modern Quaker Diversity.” I think I’ve come to understand, much better than I ever did, why people became partisans of Fox or of Nayler, Quietist Friends or Hicksite Friends, Wilburite or Gurneyite Friends, Holiness or Modernist Friends, Liberal, Conservative, Evangelical Friends, or any kind you can name. (I’m still not sure which local meeting to ask to transfer my membership to; Elizabeth and I feel close to clearness, but the discernment process isn’t over till it’s over.) One of the fruits of that course was some intensive study of Isaac Penington. I came away from it awed by my sense of his spiritual stature: he had to be up there on a level with the great saints of all time. George Fox had his Lewis Benson to interpret him for the modern world; I think Penington is still waiting for his.

My reading of the New Testament has undergone major shifts as I’ve come to see how much agenda-driven editing, interpreting, and “correcting” has gone into the texts. Matthew’s Jesus is clearly out to revolutionize His hearers’ understanding of the Torah: love your enemies, forgive your persecutors; adultery in your heart is as real a sin as an overt act; it is lawful to take reasonable liberties on the Sabbath. Yet Matthew has Jesus say that not one letter of the Law shall ever change: that, I think, has to have been Matthew’s defensive editorial addition, to argue for Jesus’ “orthodoxy” to a mostly Jewish audience. Or look at the tenderness Paul shows in Philippians and First Thessalonians, and his clear joy in the kindness and mercy of God. I think the vengeful thundering of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9 can’t have come out of the same heart; neither can the contemptuous words about the Cretans in Titus 1:10-16. I hope that a clearer picture of who Jesus and Paul really were is emerging for me. Friends, please pray that I be rightly guided here.

Last year I wrote a tract for distribution at the Climate March called “Plan C – World Repentance.” I’m still praying for world repentance. I believe in its possibility.

A Reason for the Hope that is in Me

November 11, 2015 by

In my student mailbox this morning I found an envelope containing a $100 bill and an unsigned note reading, “John, Always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is in you!”
These words echo 1 Peter 3:15, which in the King James Version reads, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.”
Well, nobody directly asked me for a reason of the hope that is in me, but this seems as good a time as any to give an account: I can start by telling you that God has spoken to me on several occasions, in clear words planted in my mind. I can tell you that I’ve despised myself and thought myself damnable, not for no good reason, but for truly despicable things I’ve said and done; but I’ve been assured that God has forgiven my sins; wishes the repentance, salvation, and perfection of every soul; and has assured me that henceforth I’ll be guarded against my own propensities to do evil. And that’s for starters.
Lest anyone conclude from this that I’m only concerned about saving my own ass, which I confess is a weakness of mine, God has also maneuvered me into a position where I’m trusted to pray for other people, and also to encourage other people to pray for one another, and to trust in the power of intercessory prayer. And not just pray for others, but do things for them, do real works of love that cost me something. As a result, I’m finding that I feel such a tenderness toward many people that I can imagine laying down my life for them. I hope I never have to, and I also hope that Jesus Christ would lend me His own courage, and His own love, enough to go through with it, if I ever did have to. But I trust that He would give me such strengths for the asking if I needed them. He said, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20, KJV), and He’s there. I’ve experienced His presence.
Perhaps you’re wondering whether I’m going to mention the present state of the world, which looks very beautiful when I look at the trees and the river and the sky, but very horrible when I look at the newspaper. It seems to be a deeply fallen world. But I have hope there, too. God may allow dreadful, cruel, meaningless- and unfair-seeming things to happen by the millions, every day, but I know that God is too good to actually will them, and God mobilizes us who care about the sufferings of others to intervene for their relief. And we haven’t yet seen what relief and healing might await us, and those others, in the next world.
But ultimately I have hope because I believe that God wants me to, and would not trick me. And I hope that God will kindle the same kind of hope in your heart, too, Friend, if God hasn’t already.
About that hundred dollars: this has happened once before; I suspect it’s the same donor; but I have no idea who he or she is. I believe that he or she wants me to receive it as a gift from God; and so I do. Now it happened that just yesterday I spent $72.95 on Bibles to give away – not that I can really “afford” such an extravagance, but it just seemed the right thing to do. I’ve just gotten my money back, plus a little seed-money for future ministries. Thank You, Lord. Thank you, too, unseen friend.

Instructions from the Risen Christ

April 20, 2015 by

A sermon delivered to Manhattan Monthly Meeting on First Day, 4/19/2015

Friends, – Jesus had a lot to say to fallen, suffering humanity during His years of ministry, but, judging from the gospel records, very little to say during the short period between His resurrection and His ascension (traditionally forty days, though the number forty may have been picked more for its mythic associations than its historical accuracy). “Hereafter I will not talk much with you,” Jesus had said in the final minutes before His arrest (John 14:30), preparing His disciples for a future in which the Holy Spirit would provide the guidance they’d been looking to Him for up till then. – And then, less than twenty-four hours later, He’d said tetélestai, “It is finished,” and died on the cross (John 19:30). And that finished His conversation with them, His teaching, His ministry, His sacrifice, His work on earth. – Almost.

This morning I invite you to join me in unpacking the remainder of that “almost,” – that is, the teachings He gave us after His resurrection from the dead. Now, the written record is sketchy. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John disagree about what happened next: in John, Mary Magdalene meets Jesus outside the tomb, and He forbids her to touch Him; in Matthew, two women encounter the risen Christ, – and touch His feet. Mark and Luke mention no encounter with Christ by the empty sepulcher, but rather with one or two men in dazzlingly white clothing (one in Mark, two in Luke). But all agree that the first witnesses were women, or a woman, who came at dawn and found the stone rolled away from the mouth of an empty grave.

And then what? – Mark and Luke tell the story of an Easter-afternoon encounter on the road to Emmaus, with a nighttime sequel among the disciples in a room in Jerusalem. John mentions two meetings with the disciples, one with Thomas absent and the second with him present. Matthew mentions no meeting with the disciples in Jerusalem, but rather one that takes place on a mountain in Galilee. John also has Jesus arrange a final breakfast with the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. In all these encounters it seems as if no one recognizes Jesus until He wills it. He also enters rooms with locked doors without passing through them. He also… vanishes.

Paul, writing to the Corinthians, also tells of the Risen Lord’s meetings with His brother James, with five hundred brethren, and with Paul himself (1 Cor. 15:5-8). A Gospel to the Hebrews, known to the Church Fathers but now lost except for a fragment, also mentions an Easter-morning breaking of bread with James. Now what happened in all these encounters? What did Jesus have to say that He hadn’t said already, or couldn’t have said before rising from the dead? And – is there a common theme or central point to it?

Here are the essentials I’ve gleaned from the records that we have:

1. I am really alive among you, in a physical flesh-and-bones body that can eat, drink, and be touched.

2. Thus was it foretold, that the Messiah should suffer, die, and be raised again (Luke 24:35-37, 44-47).

3. All authority in heaven and on earth has now been given to me (Matthew 28:18), and I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matthew 28:20b).

4. Now “receive Holy Breath from me” (John 20:22), and “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49b). In other words, an anointing of some sort is needed before you are ready to go out as disciples. (The Gospel of John says that Jesus “breathed on them,” but the original Greek says that He “blew into them” as a flute-player blows into a flute, using the verb from which we get our word “emphysema,” so He may have given them mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration, one by one.)

5. Thorough changes of heart and mind (metanoia) have now been made possible, a virtual rebirth that enables the discarding of sin (áphesis hamartiōn), which no longer clings to the sinner as it once did. This good and liberating news must now be announced to every nation (Luke 24:47).

6. You disciples must also feed My sheep (John 21:15-17), that is, live no longer for yourselves, but to tend lovingly to the people I send to you, and build community. I will equip you for your several missions with facility with new languages, immunity to snakebite and poisons, and the power of healing touch (Mark 16:17-18).

7. Peace be with you! I now send you forth, as my Father sent Me forth (John 20:19-21). Make disciples among all nations (Matt. 28:19), washing them clean in the power of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all the things that I have commanded (Mark 16:15).

Now to me, some of these parts of Jesus’ post-resurrection message have the look of the central teaching, and others, the look of a frame around the central teaching. As part of the “frame” I’d include the presentation of His credentials: He was and is the Messiah, He really died, He really is alive now, and He has authority over everything, forever. Also part of the frame would be His commission to spread His gospel, His anointing breath and charismatic empowerments, and His instruction to feed the sheep.

But what is this gospel, the central teaching in the middle?

It is, in a word, salvation. It’s the sin-eliminating metanoia, the “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18), the birth of the new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15) within the shell of the old personality, the transformation made possible for all humankind, both before and after Jesus’ walk on earth, by the death and resurrection of its Savior Jesus.

Transformation, metamorphosis: we morph, and we do it merely by facing that Holy One, name Him however we will, and by letting Him reshape us into something more like Himself (2 Cor. 3:18). This transformation, this “morphing,” frees us from addictions to sin, frees us from our defenses against being aware that we’re addicts to sin, one of which is our habit of seeing faults in others that we can’t admit to having in ourselves, and frees us from identifying ourselves with our sins and so walking around in perpetual shame, guilt, and uneasy denial, over all the vile things we’ve ever said or thought or done.

Repentance, rightly understood, disconnects us from sin so that it falls away from us. This falling away, or removal of sins, áphesis hamartiōn, often translated “forgiveness of sins,” is something that we can feel – not when we die and go to heaven, but right here. Jesus confirmed that the prostitute that crashed the banquet and washed His feet with her tears was someone who’d felt her sins forgiven, and that’s why she acted so wildly generous and loving (Luke 7:36-50). It’s not something we can fake by glibly declaring ourselves sinless, and neither is it something we can get without first forgiving everyone else their sins against us (Matt. 6:15). Neither is it a blessing that God reserves only for His special darlings, for we are told in 2 Peter 3:9 that the Lord is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (You want it for yourself? Help everybody get it!)

We come to the heart of the matter when we ask what the connection is between repentance and salvation. Briefly, there is no salvation without repentance. Salvation, sōtēría, means “safety” or “making safe.” In our unchanged, unrepentant state we are not safe, we are in bondage where we can be jerked around by our chains. If you doubt that, think of how quickly anger can jerk you into a state of temporary insanity, where you suddenly become sure that you’re in the right and the other person is in the wrong, and not only that, you must immediately correct that wrong person by hurting or humiliating him. As we are in bondage to anger, so are we in bondage to fear, pain, hunger, thirst, and erotic attraction. But Christ will free us from bondage to these things for the asking, if we’ll only cooperate with His efforts to strengthen us against the temptations these things hold over us.

If we’ve experienced this transformation of repentance, or even started to feel it, let’s do all we can to share the glorious fruit of it. It is wonderful to feel bondage to sin gone from our lives! If we haven’t yet, then let’s pray to receive it, and do all we can to get the obstacles out of the way, for ourselves and for others! – for most people in bondage can’t feel how horrible it is until they’ve been freed. Salvation has been won for us, and the Lord Jesus Christ, now risen, holds it out to us as a free gift. All we have to do is say “yes,” reach for it, and accept it.

We must decrease, and Christ increase

January 1, 2015 by

To all Friends everywhere,

We must decrease, and Christ increase.

All power is His in heaven and earth, but He will force no entry into an unwilling heart, and if we leave Him standing outside on our day of visitation, we slight Him to our own impoverishment and hurt.

He stands at the door and knocks now. Why do we hesitate? It may be that we fear diminishment, for we’ve all been promised comfort and security by the world, and we don’t want to risk the loss of it. It may be that we cherish individual ambitions, for we’ve been taught since infancy to compete for the world’s honors, and to withdraw from the contest too much resembles death in our eyes. It may be that we live in artificially heightened opinions of our own powers, rights and agency, and shrink from the possible realization that the self we so worship is but a mask, a shadow, a fiction. Of old, Christ Jesus prophesied that that which is done in secret or whispered in the ear would be shouted from the housetops, and we all have lies, tender spots, grudges, guilts, sexual kinks, shameful memories and outright sins that we dread having the whole world know about. There are so many reasons to pretend that we don’t hear that knock at the door! But none of them are good reasons, because they all involve choosing unreality over reality; and all such choices are known to end in unhappiness.

The Knocker at the door, then, is the Light that will show us who and what we are. But two things may distract us from opening to let Him in. One is our membership in a club of nice folks who also don’t answer the door. The other is our involvement in a righteous cause too important to be distracted from. The Religious Society of Friends, unfortunately, may provide us with both of these excuses.

But fortunately, the Religious Society of Friends is not really a nice folks’ club, but a people of God, bound to God by a covenant. Oh, we’ve done our best to forget the Quaker covenant announced to and through Francis Howgill on 3/28/1662. Many who know of it may regard it as a mere historical curiosity, not relevant today, though Howgill’s contemporaries took it seriously enough; his account is accessible online in William Sewel’s History of the rise, increase, and progress, of the Christian people called Quakers (p.403 of 3rd ed., 1728). But the real question, Friend reader, is: what does thy own heart say about its genuineness? If it was a real communication from the living God, then God may at any moment shake our meeting houses to their foundations, and hold us each answerable for that covenant today.

As for our righteous causes, God may prosper or frustrate them as God thinks best, but it will surely be only a matter of time before we’re shown the folly of deploying on the battlefield before consulting the General.

Let’s waste no time, Friends, in opening the door.

The Day of the Wrath of the Lamb

December 10, 2014 by

This coming Saturday, 12/13/14, is being widely promoted as a “Day of Anger.” Because many of our institutions seem to be in the hands of liars, hypocrites, the selfish and the cruel, there is much to be angry about in this country, as throughout the world. Perhaps many of us, when next called for jury duty, will find reason to tell the judge, as I do, “I have no faith in this justice system to do justice, nor in this correctional system to correct.” Fortunately, however, there is an all-seeing and almighty God, who has established an infallible justice system and a perfect correctional system.

But while we wait for these to do their work, we have a choice before us: to let anger tempt us to be hurtful, or to forgive. The Buddha warns us that if we give into such a temptation, suffering will follow us “as the cart-wheel follows the hoof of the draft-ox” (Dhammapada, 1). Jesus warns us that if we don’t forgive others their trespasses against us, neither will God forgive us our own (Matthew 6:15) – and this, not because our all-merciful God, whose very nature is Love, wants to withhold forgiveness, but because our blocking the outflow of forgiveness from our own hearts also blocks the inflow of it, just as breaking a wire in an appliance stops the flow of electric current and disables the appliance from doing what it was made to do.

Jesus modeled God’s forgiveness by forgiving even His own betrayers and murderers as He hung dying on the cross (Luke 23:34); so did His follower Stephen (Acts 7:60), setting a pattern for all persons of good will to follow. We should make every effort to follow this example, not for the selfish reason that we’re hoping for a personal heavenly reward (in which case we may not deserve that reward), but out of compassion for all those merciless, fear-driven human hearts responsible for police violence against persons of color, for CIA torture of political suspects, for sins against the planetary ecosystem, for government coverups and perversions of justice everywhere. These souls are our brothers and sisters, human broken appliances in need of repair. If we can’t wish for their recovery and salvation, we can’t fairly wish for our own; without the repair of our own unforgiving hearts, we can only expect to wind up in the same junkyard.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t rebuke evildoers; the all-important question is what spirit we rebuke them in: with intent to hurt them or intent to heal.

The Book of Revelation describes, in symbolic form, times of trouble yet to come, when disorders of nature will threaten men and women with fearsome sufferings, not unlike the way our scientists expect them to do shortly. In an ironic twist, the narrator announces that a lion will step in to save the day,  but the heralded “lion” that appears turns out to be a lamb (Rev. 5:6), symbolic of Jesus Christ. The action then heats up: war, famine, mass death, a great earthquake, and the darkening of the skies. Terrified, the rich and powerful flee to their bunkers in the mountains, where they call to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us, and hide us from the wrath of the Lamb!” (Rev. 6:16.) What, the wrath of the Lamb? Only the insane would be afraid of the wrath of a lamb! Only the insane… or those so deeply guilty, and so unforgiving in their own hearts, that when their hopes of controlling the situation vanish, they can only expect to be treated as unfeelingly as they have treated others; and that expectation is their own self-condemnation.  As the Gospel of John (3:19-20) puts it: “This is the condemnation: that men loved the darkness rather than the Light… for everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”

Earlier I expressed my trust that God’s correctional system is perfect: by which I mean that every soul gets corrected and healed, and in the end none are lost. But the thought of guilty and violent souls, before the end of that process, calling for mountains and rocks to fall on them – that’s enough to turn my Day of Anger into a Day of Tears: tears not only for the victims of racist or other police brutality, but for the perpetrators themselves. I could wish such self-inflicted cruelty on no one; and neither, I think, could the loving Creator that I worship.

The Daily Nothing

December 5, 2014 by

Ecclesiastes 3:14 reads, in the Authorized or King James Version (1611),

I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.

The thoroughly Bible-literate contemporary readers of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (1633) would therefore have recognized that God’s answer to Donne’s opening question must obviously be, “No; none of My works decay; check your Bible.”

But even if we share the faith of those 17th-century believers, we nonetheless, like Donne, often feel the dreadful need of repair, and of God’s magnetism to draw our iron hearts back upward toward their Maker:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it t’wards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour my self I can sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.

If you sit in prayer today and find distracting thoughts pulling you away from the One you’re trying to worship, try “Do Thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart” as the corrective thought to bring you back to center. Or just “Thou,” for short. It helps to remember that God wants you at least as much as you want God!

Today’s title “The Daily Nothing” came to me in the dream I awoke from: under that title, a wise old woman was publishing daily short reminders of the unchanging Truth that has nothing to do with the things of the world that change and cause us distress, neither our own “feeble flesh” nor the evils of our time, nor our impossibly long to-do lists. How important it is to make time for Nothing! To put aside our own thoughts and our own wills, to sit still in that Daily Nothing and let God do what God will with us, even if God sees fit to do Nothing with us!

Unfit to Worship

October 23, 2014 by

I woke up from a horrifying dream.

I was in a college library, smoking the stub of a joint in a secluded aisle. Fearing that others might smell marijuana smoke and come looking, I realized that I’d better conceal my little roach in my cupped hand and leave the library quickly. I hurried out the glass doors and onto the deserted twilit lawn. And then I realized that I hadn’t done my morning devotions, but had chosen to blow off greeting my God and Savior, my very Life, so that I could get stoned instead. How remorseful that made me, and how ashamed! And this choice that I’d made was no simple mistake that I could repent and ask forgiveness for, but one that had left me, at least for the moment, unfit to approach God at all, for I had just poisoned my mind with a drug that would leave me incapable of worship or focused concentration of any kind. As despair struck me, I snapped awake.

I won’t waste the reader’s time telling about my college years, now roughly half a century in the past, which provided the symbolic imagery for this dream and taught me the effects of marijuana on my own brain. I’d rather direct the reader’s attention to the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30; Luke 13:28; in my dream, the lawn outside the library), and the scriptural warnings against “finding no place of repentance, though we seek it carefully with tears” (Hebrews 12:17; so also in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31). Shakespeare gives us a memorable portrait of a sinner who kneels, but cannot pray, in King Claudius (Hamlet, III.iii). But perhaps my readers have their own memories of being in such a case. It’s not that God won’t gladly hear prayers from the most hopeless of sinners in the most hopeless of positions! But there are things we do, on our side, to disable our own access to God.

Now I’ve been proclaiming, with joy, a God who forgives everything, heralded by a prophet, God’s unique son Jesus, who forgave even His own murderers, and convincingly claimed that His Heavenly Father was of the same character (John 14:7-11). But I fear I haven’t been paying sufficient attention to the predicament of the soul who puts herself beyond this wonderful universal forgiveness, locks herself out, and throws away the key. God does not damn us; we damn ourselves (John 3:19-20). This is not God’s will for us! God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11); God intends a universal reconciliation (Colossians 1:20)! God’s nature is love (1 John 4:8) and love wishes only good to every being (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Moreover, God tells us (please forgive the masculine pronoun, which I know limits the Limitless One) that there is nothing too hard for Him (Genesis 18:14, Jeremiah 32:27). Jesus tells of the good shepherd’s delight in rescuing the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). But God, who created us with freedom of choice, can’t rescue a will that willfully refuses rescue. One must say “yes.” And we have ways of sealing our own mouths so that we can’t say “yes.” Adrienne von Speyr (in The Letter to the Colossians, commenting on Colossians 3:17) observes: “That is the most serious thing about sin: that, once chosen, it remains constant and sticks to the sinner. Unless help comes from outside, from above, unless he receives grace, man cannot get rid of it.”

I held the details of my dream in worship, and the significance of the act of smoking pot in a college library grew on me: what is a college library but a place where a student goes to acquire knowledge for the sake of understanding, and understanding for the sake of wisdom? In its essence it’s a temple for lovers of Wisdom, the bride of Love. But if one loves merely the empty mental pleasures that smoldering cannabis induces, or loves knowledge for purposes contrary to wisdom and love (say, the power to dominate, exploit, impress or seduce people), then one is not only an impostor with no business in the temple of Wisdom but a fire-hazard dangerous to its treasures. They and you don’t belong together. For your own sake it’s best to get out of the treasury of knowledge before the knowledge itself turns hurtful to you, as our misguided civilization is now starting to discover – but that’s another topic.

For the topic at hand is love: we’re given the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourself (Matthew 22:37-40), as God loves us. When we love things incompatible with the love of God and the neighbor, like our own pleasure and profit, our own safety, our own preeminence and good name,  or the secret compartment we hide our lies in, then, and to the extent of these loves, we disable our own access to God. What foolishness! And yet we all do it, at least until we ask to have our hearts washed clean of loves for lifeless idols. But that’s the easiest and simplest thing to ask for!

So take this opportunity to pray with me: Lord God, Divine Mother, Higher Power, whatever You wish us to call You, show us the true nature of the objects we’ve given our love to; help us discern rightly what deserves our love, and what does not; give us hearts willing to love the good and the worthy; and then set them on fire with love! This we ask in Jesus’ name, who promised (John 14:14), “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” Amen.

 

Mystery, Marketing, and the Mess at General Theological Seminary

October 19, 2014 by

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/whatgodwantsforyourlife/2014/10/when-mystery-becomes-product-the-case-of-general-theological-seminary/ The link is to a blog by Frederick William Schmidt about the conflict at General Theological Seminary in New York City.  In recent weeks, from what I can make out on the Quaker sidelines, several faculty members registered complaints with the Board of Trustees about the dean. Matters got to a point where eight faculty members wrote to the trustees saying that they would stop teaching until matters were resolved. The trustees took this as a letter of resignation from the eight faculty members, accepted it as such, and relieved the eight of their positions on the faculty. The eight faculty members said it was never meant as a resignation. Questions about the right to organize, the right to strike, freedom of speech, and academic freedom are swirling around.

On Friday, October 17, the trustees reaffirmed that the dean was the dean they wanted and the eight faculty members could apply for provisional reinstatement on an individual basis—which I’m told is a classic union-busting technique. I’m posting about this on Among Friends because there are things in Schmidt’s blog and in the comments on his blog that got me thinking about Quaker life and New York Yearly Meeting. For example, Schmidt says that seminaries were created by the Council of Trent to be “seedbeds.”

“Over time, seminaries have become something very different.  They are no longer seedbeds, they are dispensaries, sources of information, places where commodities are sold, factories. . . . And, now, as numbers and money begin to become acute issues for seminaries, boards and seminary leaders without any deep sympathy for that seedbed model are beginning to ask themselves, ‘How can we distribute this information and collect tuition for it in a more efficient fashion?'”

In the last paragraph of his post, Schmidt talks about mystery— “Therein lies the message to the seminaries left standing: Consider your purpose.  If you are simply dispensing information, your days are numbered.  The product can be codified, recorded, and dispensed.  A seedbed is a different matter.  It is baptism into a mystery – an experience of God – a relationship with God and those who have been touched by the Divine.  Mystery is not something that is simply learned, it is absorbed and the few that choose to offer that gift have a future.  For those that don’t offer that mystery, there isn’t one.”

Those last two sentences opened to me why effective Quaker religious education is so difficult. How do you teach a mystery? How do you teach the mystery that is Quaker meeting for worship? Schmidt’s words help explain to me why we leave so much to the notorious Quaker ‘process of osmosis.’ Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. But is there a way to engage people in that osmotic process more effectively in our monthly meetings? 

I got more explanations—these about yearly meeting life—as I read the comments on Schmidt’s blog. In one by Roy Herndon Smith, I found this— “As Bernard Brandon Scott observes, in any age, the dominant institution in society becomes the model for churches and church-related institutions. In sixteenth-century Europe, the feudal court was the model for the church. In twenty-first century America, the corporation is the model.”

And there we are: the ‘priorities’ models of marketing that New York and Philadelphia yearly meetings (are there others?) adopted this summer. To adapt Schmidt’s quote, I heard my yearly meeting asking of itself: ‘How can we . . . collect [money] in a more efficient fashion?’”

Early Friends witnessed against the feudal court–model of the church and “the dominant institution” of society. Friends today are falling nicely into step with the wisdom to be found in the life of the successful capitalist corporation. In another comment, I learned about Juergen Habermas from someone going by his Twitter handle of frharry. Frharry has a somewhat heavy style that needs a little ear-of-the-heart translating. Bear with it—

“Juergen Habermas spoke of the colonization of the lifeworld by its business quadrant as early as the 1980s. With the political quadrant neutralized, business construction of the lifeworld based in business values of profit and the commodification of all aspects of that world (including its human “resources”) no longer had any checks. As a result, all social institutions and cultural values become colonized, taking on business values and goals. Education becomes knowledge fluency, higher education becomes job training, students become consumers. It is an impoverishment of the lifeworld that ironically sells itself to the public as the best of possible worlds, a la Pangloss. Most of the time we are so voluntarily distracted that we don’t notice.”

I lift up for your attention the concept of becoming colonized, taking on business values and goals.

The mention of Pangloss with its reference to Voltaire’s Candide was especially meaningful to me. As part of the summer’s Priorities business, New York Yearly Meeting Friends are being urged to contribute to the Make Our Garden Grow web page: http://www.nyym.org/?q=MakeOurGardenGrow

I keep wanting to post the Leonard Bernstein–Stephen Sondheim song there.

Steps on the path, part 1

September 22, 2014 by

Hello, this is Elizabeth. I haven’t posted on this blog for years, but here I am. A lot of things have wanted to be written for quite a while, but I haven’t given them their way until now. Here’s one of them.

My earlier theological history tended to be on the vague side. That’s not always a bad thing. My father was a theologian who talked himself up, down, and around in circles, with (so far as I can see) the primary objective of proving himself Not Wrong. That, I came to recognize, is even more important than Being Right. Being right, hedging bets, or being noncommittal are all fine, because nobody can point at you and laugh at you for Being Wrong. Naturally, I grew up with similar biases.

I couldn’t “believe in God” for a long time when I was young, although we’d been taught to as children. I thought believing meant “thinking something was factually true.” I couldn’t believe the Bible’s origin stories or the idea of a bigger and better dad in the sky called Our Father. I couldn’t inflate the image of my father into a model for something to worship (though I’m sure he would have liked me to). I couldn’t believe in a lot of the words people said about God.

What started to soften that stance was music. I was a violinist and a choral singer. In the latter capacity I experienced a lot of sacred music from the inside. I detested the soupy, sappy, sentimental kind (and generally still do), but I also had the chance to sing great music under the direction of a good choral conductor in high school and a superb one (Iva Dee Hiatt) in college.

The thing is, I didn’t agree with the words, but from my place in the midst of the music I knew that in the best of it the whole thing, the music and words together, were True. They were about something absolutely real that couldn’t be denied, but neither could it be expressed with words alone. (Music without words could be True in a similar way.)

I came to admit that the True Thing I was experiencing had something to do with God that was closer and more real to me than anything anyone had ever said about God. It was akin to my awe at the beauty of nature, although not identical.

I continued to hedge my bets for a while but became increasingly comfortable with calling that True Thing God. And once I’d committed myself to that, my experience of God became deeper and broader and more certain. It’s been quite a few years now since I would have said I wasn’t sure if God existed. God is sure and certain, and God’s seeds are growing in me all the time.

I’d be as unwilling as ever to write a Credo that defines what I “think” about God, or lays out a series of beliefs that others must agree to if they are to share my faith. I do sometimes find it hard to communicate with people who rattle off questions at me designed to determine whether I meet their criteria as a believer. Even my beloved John has a more literalistic view of God than I have, although thankfully our differences are a matter of dialogue and mutual querying rather than trying to convince each other that we’re Right.

Some would say my theology is still vague, and by their standards it may be. But I know God. I have no doubts at all that God is real, even if undefinable. I’m immensely grateful that God snuck up behind me and bypassed all those theology words and yes/no questions. God knew that the music, the love, the moon and the trees and the water all orange and purple in the sunset, would find the place in me that the words couldn’t reach.

And I know I am growing into a better and better person (still not necessarily all that good, but much better than I once was) because of the God I know. I have that most precious of things, a place to stand.

And now, yes, there are words that speak to that same deep place: Holy, holy, holy.  Dona nobis pacem.  Et lux perpetua luceat eis.  Jerusalem, Jerusalem!  Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?…when the morning stars sang together, and all the children of God shouted for joy?  Even though I walk in a dark and dreary land, there is nothing that can shake me — She has said She won’t forsake me — I’m in Her hand.  And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish thou the work of our hands upon us.

And the word became flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.

To be continued.

What Quakers Believe about… Repentance and Remission of Sins

September 20, 2014 by

And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. – Luke 24:47 (AV)

What Quakers believe about anything is, for better or for worse, conditioned by what they’ll allow themselves to believe. Those of little faith may believe some of what they read in the newspaper, some of the time, while those of great faith may be working major “signs and wonders” to the glory of God. One thing Friends tend to agree on, though, is that we ought to speak from personal experience, and be able to answer affirmatively to the query, “Is it inwardly from God?” If it’s simply an opinion – early Friend George Fox wrote, “We own not opinions.” What follows, I believe, is inwardly from God.

According to the author of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus left his followers with a commission to preach, that is, to announce the availability of, a changed state of mind (metanoia or “repentance”) that would allow one to know oneself to be sinless: in other words, that one’s previously acknowledged sins had been dismissed, forgiven, and declared null and void. The original Greek reads metanoia eis aphesin hamartiōn, literally “repentance into remission of sins, so we know that Jesus didn’t intend us to think that “repentance” and “remission of sins” were two separate and independent gifts, but one thing that led directly into the other.

And yes, they are gifts: repentance isn’t something we can achieve by ourselves, any more than we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. As the first generation of Christians recognized (Acts 11:18), it comes to us as a gift from outside ourselves, or not at all. Otherwise there’d be a huge industry peddling repentance like a drug, and how-to-forgive-yourself books would be on every combat veteran’s Kindle. Churches would be fitness centers of the soul, where moms and dads would put in a half hour on the treadmill after work to sweat out the day’s lies, white-collar crimes and adulterous fantasies, then go home to the kids fresh as a daisy. Of course there are preachers who’ll exhort you to repent as if you could do it at will: but I, who had to “repent” of smoking seven times before I could stay quit, can tell them otherwise: it was granted me to quit smoking.

How would we know that we ourselves, or another person, are in a genuine state of repentance and not in a mere mood or delusion? For there are people that do dreadful things without feeling the least bit sinful about them; we call them psychopaths. But “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16-20). Jesus, in Luke 7:36-50, shows us the signs of a person who knows she’s been forgiven all her sins – she’s exuberant, loving, and generous, even to the point of letting herself look a little foolish: she weeps in public, she kisses Jesus’ feet. It’s a kind of behavior not easily counterfeited.

Moreover, repentant people who’ve experienced remission of sins should be able to describe how they know their sins were remitted. Since George Fox’s day, Quakers have been in the habit of asking claimants to religious truth, “What canst thou say?” I could answer you, for example, that I was sitting in meeting one day, obsessively berating myself for some past foolishness, when I heard an authoritative Voice in my mind say, “That sin is forgiven: put it away!” During another Quaker meeting I heard that Voice say “I will not let you fall into sin.” And there were other experiences, so that today I feel still temptable, but powerfully protected, and discouraged from worrying. But ask for your own convincing experience!

Luke records that remission of sins is to be preached in Jesus’ name, and it’s a fact that among North American Quakers today, some preach in Jesus’ name and some do not. Some might argue that, before Jesus’ time, the Buddha also taught a way to sinlessness that erases the karma and vāsanās of sin: of whether this way works I confess my ignorance, not having followed that path. I preach repentance and remission of sins in Jesus’ name for these reasons:

1. I’ve felt myself given “a mouth, and wisdom” (Luke 21:15) to do so by the Lord Jesus Himself, who has made me a member of Christ. In this work “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is a condition available to everyone, though it requires a kind of voluntary dying to one’s old ways.

2. Only in the ministry of Jesus, for the first time in known history, do we find an instruction to forgive everyone everything, modeled perfectly for us by the Teacher’s own behavior, coupled with a declaration that God our Creator is of the same all-forgiving spirit. It is extremely important for men and women to know this about God. But to know this about God, we must practice that all-forgiving spirit ourselves, and ask God’s help with it.

One thing Quakers are rightly known for is their truthfulness, and I would be less than truthful if I claimed or even implied that what I’ve written here is typical of contemporary Quaker thought. But I do hope to help make it so.


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